The time you invest in scouting for whitetails should not decrease once the season begins.
Consistent and successful big buck hunters usually have a few qualities in common. They all know the property they hunt -- and the whitetails that live there -- intimately. They understand that nourishment and sexual urges greatly dictate fall movement patterns. They scout constantly, and they know that subtle relocations during the season can make the difference between a filled tag and a tag sandwich. They practice outstanding woodsmanship, and they eat, sleep and breathe deer hunting 365 days a year.
It is no mystery that your best chances of shooting a mature animal are during the first sit in a particular stand, but don't let your confidence in a great spot sink if you have not succeeded on your first trip out. Some stands are just great spots year after year, but I find it hard to believe that a stand left in the same spot every season will produce record-book animals on a regular basis.
Deer, like humans, are creatures of habit, and they can become conditioned to your routine as easily as you can become conditioned to theirs, even if you are not aware of it. Few whitetails have altogether avoided any sort of encounter with humans, vehicles or hunting seasons. Their job is to survive, and that requires constant adaptation to the environment in which they live.
For a giant whitetail to survive, he must outsmart his predators and the other deer that share the property on which he resides. One of the biggest mistakes a hunter can make is to quit scouting once the season has begun. To do so is to ignore changes in the movement, sign and feeding habits of the whitetail you are pursuing.
THE FOOD TRANSITION
In agricultural areas, a whitetail's food preference changes as the crops mature. Deer will go where the most abundant forage is located, whether that resource is wheat, sunflowers, blueberries, forbs, blackgum, coralberry, cranberries, acorn mast, oak buds, shin oak, maple buds, grapes, persimmon, snowberry, honeysuckle, greenbrier, blackberries, sumac bushes or cottonwood. But for the majority of the U.S. -- and especially the central and Midwest regions -- corn, soybeans, and alfalfa are the preferred food sources. These foods have seasons as well, meaning they are available only at certain times, so knowing when the deer feed on them is essential to your setups or adjustments.
In locations where soybeans are available, deer will feed heavily on them while they are still green, but as soon as they begin to turn yellow, deer seem to leave them alone. They will return to that food source near harvest time, which is when the beans have achieved moisture levels of about 20 percent or less. If you do not farm the land you hunt, keep in touch with the landowners, as they will know how their crops are maturing. Hunting the fringes of these destination food sources can be extremely productive when whitetails' predominant focus is still on feeding, but when the rut begins, things change.
The best way to get a grasp on this transition is by continuing to scout on a regular basis, whether from the stand or at a distance. Continue to document your findings, and compile several years worth of records based on these feeding habit changes. You will have some very valuable scouting information to which you can refer.
There will always be does that come into estrous early, and that is a sure sign that things are on the verge of busting loose. Observing their behavior this time of year is essential to recognizing the changes as they take place rather than after the fact. As this transition occurs, it might be time to get into your very best spots.
Food sources can be very effective during the peak of the rut, but a stronger pattern exists in and around bedding areas, including major travel corridors to and from food. You will notice more bucks carelessly cruising the staging areas between bed and feeding locations at odd hours of the day, but one of the greatest indicators that the rut has begun is when you rarely see a couple of does without a buck or two keeping a close eye on things.
Scrapes will still be checked but rarely freshened during the 14- to 18-day stretch around the peak. In the greater Midwest, the first two weeks of November generally comprise the peak, but farther south into states like Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, the rut can be as late as December, January and even into early February. The key in these areas is determining when the rut primarily takes place in your region before making any aggressive stand relocations.
As the peak of the rut draws near, the seeking phase gives way to the chasing phase, and the does are under relentless pursuit by their male counterparts. They do their best to avoid the bucks until their time is right, but a movement pattern can become very difficult to recognize, as spontaneity seems to be a factor this time of the year. The does still keep feeding a top priority, but the bucks will hardly eat until the intensity of the rut has subsided.
THE SPOT SET
What if I told you there was a way to recreate the effectiveness of the "first sit" every time out? Would you be willing to put forth extra effort employing a strategy that assures spot freshness each and every time out? It is very possible and extremely lethal when executed correctly.
Many hunters today set up stands to accommodate this transition and different wind directions in advance of the season, but there is a way to effectively cover all your bases without a large stockpile of tree stands. There are certainly applications to hanging your tree stands during the spring and summer for the upcoming fall, but keeping a few extra sets on hand for a last-second adjustment is a great idea.
Several years ago, I was set on having as many stands in place as possible before the season started to cover an array of situations. After several sits in a very busy, bottlenecked field edge, I was beginning to get frustrated. The amount of deer I had seen moving through the area, along with with a plethora of rubs and scrapes, seemed to indicate that my setup was in a perfect location, but as the season got under way, more and more deer were bypassing me by 60 yards.
Unfortunately, the bucks were not responding well to calling, and I knew it was time to make an adjustment. But with a bedding area located just 100 yards from my stand, I could hardly disassemble my stand and move it without broadcasting my movements to every deer in the area.
Fortunately, I had recently acquired a quality stand and climbing sticks. I decided to get in there early the following afternoon before the deer headed out to feed and take the "hand-and-hunt" approach.
Around 11 a.m. the next morning I strapped my stand and sticks to my pack, grabbed my bow and headed afield. I had scoped out a good tree the evening before, and rather than trim brush off it, I just planned on positioning the stand facing away from where I expected the deer to approach and using the trunk of the tree as my cover.
When I got to the base of the tree, I tied my bow to my hoist cord, removed one section of the climbing sticks and attached it to the base of the tree. I kept the stand on my back and placed each stick on the tree, working my way up. Finally, I locked my stand on the trunk and climbed on. I was confident that I had made little noise, and I felt good about my prospects for the evening sit.
About an hour before dark I heard some deer approaching quickly with some intermittent grunting. I knew I was about to have some action. I stood up, clipped my release on my string and prepared myself as I spotted antlers belonging to a shooter. It happened so fast I really don't remember coming to full draw or settling the pin, but I do remember my heart beating in my ears and watching my red and white fletching disappearing behind his shoulder.
Since that November evening, six of my last 10 bow bucks have fallen to the 'Spot Set,' and I have the utmost confidence in its effectiveness, but knowing your property and your gear thoroughly is vitally important.
This aggressive tactic can be a gamble, but when performed correctly, you have the benefit of hunting a fresh setup every time in the woods. One of the most important aspects of successfully implementing the spot set is having quality gear and knowing how to apply it quickly and quietly.
There are a lot quality tree stands available, but to employ this strategy you need lightweight, compact gear that can be carried and set up silently. I personally recommend you look into the Lone Wolf or Muddy systems, as they are designed to be quiet, light-weight, easy to use and comfortable, which is nice for those long, peak-of-the-rut sits.
It's a good idea to practice setting up your portable equipment a few times before you use it in the field. Be comfortable with the setup to a point where you could do it in the dark while still maintaining silence.
By combining your in-season scouting efforts with the willingness and ability to adjust your stand setups, you can maximize your odds of encountering a big buck before he patterns you!
An intimate knowledge of the property you hunt combined with an in-season understanding of how your deer herd is adjusting to changes in food resources and breeding activity can produce a recipe that keeps the deer -- and especially the mature bucks -- constantly guessing your next move.
Once the season is underway, don't stop scouting or adjusting to the changes that seem to continue with each passing day. The unpredictability of the whitetail rut can be frustrating, but it is the most exciting time you can spend in the autumn woods.
Finally, as I suggested in the August edition of North American Whitetail magazine ("The Scouting Advantage"), document everything about your hunts, including the conditions, your decisions based on the changing habits of your quarry and the nature of your encounters. After several years of dedicated record-keeping, you will begin to notice and correct patterns in your own hunting strategies, but you will also be more effective at making educated decisions about the behavior of the bucks in your neck of the woods!